Bartenders You Should Know: Zachary Calfee, Roost
Chances are, if you order a whiskey cocktail at the Roost bar, bartender Zachary Calfee will convince you to give James E. Pepper whiskey a shot.
And he’ll sell it to you in his signature high-energy, rapid-fire manner that will convince you of both its historic importance to the catalog of American whiskey (and therefore, your life) and that there’s absolutely no chance of saying no.
While measuring and mixing whatever version of an Old Fashioned you’ve settled on, Calfee will also probably tell you the tragic tale of the flamboyant Col. Pepper’s all-too-early demise after slipping, falling, and hitting his head in 1906 at 56 years old.
Just three minutes into that stop for a drink, you’ll realize with Calfee behind the bar that your experience will become equal parts educational and enjoyable, especially if he gets chatting about his precocious 3-year-old daughter, Phoenix. And in Calfee’s mind, that’s mission accomplished.
Calfee, at 28 years old, has recently been named the master of mixology for Auro Hotels, formerly part of JHM Hotels. Auro owns the Hyatt downtown where Roost is, the under-construction Spring Hill Suites/Residence Inn combo at the corner of East Washington and Spring streets, and the future AC Hotel at the Camperdown development at South Main and Broad streets.
As the new “MoM,” as he jokingly calls it, Calfee will revamp the Hyatt’s atrium bar along with other Auro Hotel bars in the area and concept for the multiple new beverage programs that will open in new hotels throughout the brand.
For the Spring Hill Suites restaurant, Calfee has an Earth-themed cocktail menu planned that he describes as approachable and affordable.
“I don’t want you to have to gauge whether the price of that drink is worth the experience,” he says.
For the AC Hotel, which will have a rooftop and street-level bar, the drinks will be less complicated because of the high volume of guests, but still “amazing drinks,” he says.
And even though he’s relatively young to land in such a formative position, Calfee, who moved to the Upstate in June 2016, has 10 years of experience concocting both regular and adventurous cocktails in small farm-to-table restaurants, night clubs, franchise bars, and his own speakeasy.
Calfee is originally from Knoxville, Tenn., where he began working in restaurants as a teenager. At age 18, he was working at Wok Hay, a defunct Asian Ruby Tuesday concept, when a bartender called in sick, and he got thrown behind the bar with some champion bartenders.
“I’ve always been really good with people, and I was already interested in the bar, but I wasn’t allowed to bartend because I wasn’t 21,” he says.
He had a knack for it, and it ended up becoming his regular gig. Once in college at the University of Tennessee, he continued to bartend at a variety of establishments, but he says he was actually afraid to become too dedicated because of the risk of it pulling him away from school. Though, in actuality, he wasn’t happy with how his academic experience was going, bouncing around from anthropology to film to geology majors.
“I was all over the place, and all of those things that I was doing, I really disliked the people that I was around. They were kinda like Sheldon — they weren’t very social,” he says, referring to the anti-social but brilliant “The Big Bang Theory” character. “And I liked science. I liked school, but I liked people, and I wanted to get to do that.”
One day, Calfee came home after a particularly rough shift behind the bar and he thought about quitting entirely, but then he read an online article about making his own amaretto.
“I thought, ‘That’s stupid. I hate amaretto. It’s sweet and awful. Why would you want to make your own?’” he says.
Somehow, the allure of an easy home project lured him in, and he gave it a shot. “It was really good,” he says.
His would-be wife was out of town, so he had some time to kill.
“When my wife got home from her trip, the refrigerator was full of my house-made gin, and I had spiced rum making in the corner, and I had bottles of green tea liquor, and amaretto,” he says. “And I just couldn’t stop.”
Calfee, at age 23, was hooked.
“Within six months from that, I had dropped out of school and cashed in my retirement accounts to open my first bar,” he says.
That bar, Armada in Knoxville, could hold 200-plus people and would run for three years, becoming profitable, before a construction mishap in the neighboring building damaged his building’s foundation. A competitor hired up Calfee and his entire staff within a week or two, and he was named manager and lead for any new concepts, which landed him with 80-hour workweeks.
“I learned a ton,” he says. “I mean, it was awful.”
His position at Roost and now with Auro Hotels isn’t quite that intense, but it is busy. Yet Calfee finds a way to tap into his love of reading, even if it’s for work.
“I still get to read, but I’m reading cookbooks, and I’m reading online articles about how to make chocolate curds so I can figure out how to infuse those flavors onto tequila,” he says.
Fatherhood has also certainly changed his use of free time.
“My hobbies are now braiding hair and coloring. We do the trampoline park a lot. Most of my hobbies are now her hobbies,” he says. “I like cinema and art, but I only use that now to get a connection with people over the bar. It’s one of those things — it can help you engage at work.”
Favorite cocktail to make:
Lion’s Tail (bourbon and lime, allspice dram, some almond or walnut)
“You can take the worst whiskey on the planet, I mean, it just tastes disgusting, and it’ll still taste good in that drink. You can use the bottom shelf of the bottom shelf, and it’ll still taste good.”
Craziest cocktail ever made:
The Smog at Armada
Calfee created a house-blended whiskey (Buffalo Trace, Applejack brandy, and Rittenhouse Rye), mixed with vermouth, smoked cloves, and brown sugar and cinnamon, served from the smoking jar.